Ideally, I'd like for my next new car to be made in America by an American carmaker.
I'd prefer a good-quality, well-built small car that is moderately priced, gets excellent gas mileage, has sufficient pep for freeway on-ramps and will last 150,000-plus miles if well-maintained.
I'd like side air bags as a foil to loony drivers who willfully run red lights and cause deadly right-angle crashes. I'd like a CD player and a cup holder - two features missing in my 15-year-old Toyota Tercel. But I could manage without a global positioning system or built-in DVD player.
Although I'd ideally prefer an American car, I've been buying vehicles built by foreign manufacturers for 25-plus years. They generally seemed better-built, had fewer maintenance problems, lasted longer and drew better ratings from Consumer Reports
It was a little 1975 Chevrolet Vega station wagon that drove me away from American cars. As a young, financially struggling reporter with a wife staying at home with our two preschool daughters, I bought the Vega used, for $1,000 cash, but soon paid more than that in repairs.
One of the car's most maddening features was a standard transmission plagued by sticking gears. I sometimes had to crawl under the car and unstick the gears with my hands.
I began thinking about that vexatious Vega this week while doing research on federal fuel economy standards. For many years now, Congress has refused to raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards because it wants to protect U.S. automakers who make much more money selling big SUVs and pickups than little, fuel-efficient cars.
But with gasoline prices having escalated as high as $3 a gallon in recent years, one has to wonder: Was Congress really doing domestic automakers a favor by neglecting to set significantly higher CAFE standards that would have forced them to focus on building more high-quality, fuel-efficient small cars?
U.S. automakers have been taking a financial bath in recent times, in part because their gigantic, gas-gulping SUVs and pickups have become notably less de rigueur in the wake of spiraling fuel prices and the specter of global warming. Had Congress mandated substantially higher CAFE standards a decade ago, U.S. carmakers almost certainly would be better positioned today to compete with the Toyotas, Hondas and Kias of the automotive world in the small-vehicle market.
We need to raise CAFE standards significantly - by perhaps 5 to 10 miles a gallon over a decade - to help slake our thirst for foreign oil and curb air pollution. Higher standards also could reduce fuel consumption and lower pump prices. The passage of new standards in 1975 paved the way for a near-doubling of fuel economy over the next decade.
But since then, we've made little progress on fuel economy, despite major improvements in engine efficiency. As gas again became cheap in the late 1980s and 1990s, Americans bought bigger cars with greater horsepower. The average weight for new U.S. cars and light trucks for the 2006 model year was a record 4,142 pounds, an 11 percent jump from 1997 models, according to a Bloomberg news service report.
My criteria for a new car might dictate that I buy something like a Toyota Corolla. (My wife, Nina, and I have owned three Corollas and liked them very much.) But I'd prefer to buy a car built in America by a U.S.-based automaker, if I can find one closely comparable in price, quality, fuel economy and reliability to a Corolla.
The badly built American small cars of the 1970s helped pave the way for a successful U.S. invasion by foreign automakers, who now have a sizable number of manufacturing plants in America. It's my understanding that small cars made by U.S. automakers have improved substantially in more recent times.
If so, I might be able to distance myself from the memory of that dreadful little Vega and buy American for the first time in more than a quarter-century. How about it, Detroit?